Yes, I know what you are thinking! Why am I discussing something that is “bad”? Didn’t our parents threaten to “wash our mouths out with soap” whenever we said a bad word? But…is swearing really that bad? Like any researcher, I decided I needed to find out if this truly was the case, and what I discovered fascinated me. In today’s blog and podcast, I will discuss how new and exciting research on swearing shows that it can actually be good for our mental health. Yes, you read that correctly: swearing can be good for you!
Recent research on swearing indicates that it is our perceptions of the words, not necessarily the words themselves, which are often be based off mistaken beliefs, ill-intentions and incorrect facts, that can cause mental distress. How you use a word, and how you feel about using the word, can affect you (and those around you) in a positive or negative way—it’s all about intent.
Of course, I am not saying you need to swear to improve your mental health. If it really upsets you or others around you, then, it is probably not a good idea. If certain words are used to disparage someone or someone’s background, then it is definitely not a good thing. However, for many people, it can be another tool in their mental health toolbox. And, if you totally disagree with me, that is okay! Remember, agreeing to disagree is also good for your mental health!
As I mentioned above, the cultural perception of swearing plays a large role in determining whether swearing is good or bad for us, not the actual words themselves. If different cultures have different “bad” words, we need to recognize that the words themselves are not bad; rather, it is the connotation and thoughts behind the words, which need to be examined and addressed. Just saying a word is “bad” doesn’t deal with the root issue.
We also have to ask ourselves why swearing is consistent across cultures. Is there perhaps a reason humans love to curse? I did some digging to find out why swearing may be popular, and examined 5 major reasons why swearing can be so satisfying (these are discussed in detail in the book Swearing Is Good for You by Emma Byrne):
1. Research shows that swearing can be a toxic stress relief—a bit like having a good cry. Studies suggest that people in stressful situations handle them better and suffer less from toxic stress if you tell them they can swear, while people who are told not to swear perform worse when faced with a challenging situation.
In fact, research done in airplane cockpits and operating rooms has shown that pilots and surgeons who are allowed to swear are better able to deal with and recover from stressful events compared to pilots and surgeons who aren't allowed to curse. Why? Swearing seems to get emotions out your body instead of them being absorbed by your body and brain, which can cause mental and physical damage. It also seems to be a way to unclutter thinking and problem-solve (which you definitely want people in operating rooms and planes to do haha)!
I often talk about “freaking out in the love zone” and about how important it is not to suppress but to embrace, process and reconceptualize issues. For some people, swearing can help with this; it can offer a release in the moment, and prevent issues from spiraling out of control, which can damage your mental and physical health.
2. Research also shows that swearing can reduce physical pain. A 2009 study done at Keele University in the UK, for instance, asked college students to plunge a hand in ice-cold water. They found that when the participants repeated a swear word out loud during the chilly experience were able to keep their hands submerged for longer, and reported feeling less pain than when they just repeated a neutral word. According to the authors of this study, “their subjective experience of how bad [their hand] hurt was incredibly different when they were swearing,” and “when they were swearing, it didn’t feel as bad.”
Why is this so? One theory is that cursing helps trigger your “fight or flight” response, which raises your heart rate and pumps more adrenaline through your body—these two responses that can make you more tolerant of pain.
Swearing also shifts your attention away from the physical pain you are experiencing to the power (or perceived power) of the word itself. On a quantum physics level, you have shifted energy away from the pain and onto the word, which can actually help balance the physical stress on your body and help you deal with pain.
3. Studies indicate that using swear words may help you cope with health issues. A study was done showing that people recovering from cancer, or people who have a long-term chronic illness, find that swearing is helpful in terms of dealing with their emotions and the gravity of the situation. This is particularly the case with men: for them, swearing is a way to talk about sadness and loss without “losing face” by crying or showing their fear.
4. Cursing while you exert yourself physically may actually make you stronger! Think of squeezing something in your hand: if you swear, you may make your grip stronger and tighter and longer! According to researchers, swearing “increases your resilience and strength temporarily.” So, next time you at the gym, try out a few choice swear words (quietly if people are nearby haha) to see if it helps!
5. It can bring people together. Swearing can break down barriers between people and help develop meaningful relationships, because it shows vulnerability, is based on a level of trust, and can break through social awkwardness and make a situation more humorous.
As Emma Byrne says: “it’s a shame cursing gets such a bad rap. We’ve been socialized to believe that swearing is universally really bad, but it isn’t always about being aggressive, or overwhelmingly negative towards people.”
Of course, if swearing offends someone, be respectful around that person, but be sure to talk about why it it’s offensive. See this discussion as an opportunity to have an open dialogue, which is so good for your mental health because you are working on making meaningful connections. And, as I mentioned above, agreeing to disagree is also a good intellectual exercise, increasing your insight and creativity.
I would also add that you should never forget the bigger picture when it comes to swearing in general, and when teaching children about swearing: what is the point of a rule? It’s far better to cultivate a sense of respect for different opinions and differences in general, and teach them how to tune in to others and be respectful and kind, then getting stuck in the little things. I am sure we all want to instill respect for others in our children, so perhaps a better strategy is to teach kids to value differences and see others as worthy, because if this is not valued, then they will in all likelihood only respect people that are like them or speak like them, and judge others who are different.
In the end, I believe that it is far more dangerous for your mental health to use judgmental phrases and hostile words, or feel guilt every time you swear, than to say a swear word now and then. Ultimately, swearing is not bad in and of itself; rather, it is how we perceive swearing and how we use curse words that matters. How and why we swear is tied closely to your own cultural and personal views, which say a lot more about your character than a timely f-bomb ever will.